By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Williams, Jr., thought nothing of chasing down a car, with an unconscious driver, that was grinding alongside an embankment wall in the northbound lane of Interstate 75 in Atlanta on Aug. 16.
The 52-year-old deputy was able to quickly catch up with the vehicle, which he estimated was traveling at 10 miles per hour, break out a passenger side window, get the car's locked passenger door open, climb into the vehicle and pull the vehicle's emergency break.
In his mind, Williams said on Wednesday, he was attempting to rescue an unconscious motorist, as well as keep other motorists out of harm's way.
"I was thinking of just the person's safety, and the safety of the rest of the people on the interstate," he said.
For his actions on that day, the Jonesboro-based, Tara Council of the Knights of Columbus recognized Williams, a nine-year veteran of the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, as its 2009 Public Safety Professional of the Year. The award was presented during the group's 37th annual Public Safety Appreciation Day luncheon.
In addition to recognizing Williams, the Knights of Columbus also recognized Forest Park Police Officer Stephen R. Geeslin as the Police Officer of the Year, and Clayton County Fire Department Lt. Anthony Grimaldi as the Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) of the Year. Geeslin and Grimaldi did not attend the luncheon, and could not be reached later for comment.
The incident for which Williams was recognized occurred while he and another deputy were traveling to the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta in August. They were going to pick up an inmate and transfer him to the Clayton County Jail.
As the deputies were traveling north on Interstate 75, they noticed a vehicle was stopped in the middle of the interstate. An unconscious, 45-year-old male was in the driver's seat, Williams said.
"We pulled up along side him, and we immediately noticed he was slumped over in his seat, and he appeared to be unconscious," Williams said. "Then, the car just took off. His foot must have slipped off the brake or something. We got up to speeds of up to 60 miles per hour trying to catch up to him. We activated our lights to keep other drivers out of the way."
After the runaway vehicle hit another vehicle, it veered toward the embankment wall on the side of the road, hit the wall, and began to slow down as it scraped the side of the wall, according to the deputy. At this point, as the sheriff's office patrol car pulled to the side of the road as well, Williams, who had been sitting in the passenger's seat, jumped out and began chasing the vehicle on I-75.
He caught up with the vehicle and broke out the rear, passenger-side window with his baton. He then extended the baton and used it to unlock the front passenger door to get it open. "I basically had to jump in the car and pull the emergency break to get it to stop," he said.
Meanwhile, the deputy's wife of nearly four years, Clayton County Sheriff's Deputy Terry Williams, was in Jonesboro at the Sheriff's Office, listening to the ordeal on a radio. "My heart was pounding," she said. "The deputy side of me knew he wouldn't be hurt, but the wife side of me was gripping that radio ... It was an unsettling moment for me."
Robert Williams said the unconscious driver flat-lined while EMTs were removing him from the car, but they were able to revive him. The deputy also said the EMTs determined that the man had had a seizure while he was driving.
Williams was nominated for the public safety award by his boss, Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, who praised the deputy for putting his own safety aside to save the driver and other motorists on the interstate. Kimbrough said Williams will likely also be in the running for the Sheriff's Office's Deputy of the Year Award later this year.
"He's always thinking about others," Kimbrough said. "It doesn't surprise me that, once he found out the driver was unconscious, he tried to save him."
John Halloran, the director of community activities for the Knights of Columbus' Tara Council, said public safety department heads in Clayton County, including city public safety departments, submit the names and deeds of officers, deputies and firefighters/EMTs to the council for consideration for the awards. Council members then vote individually on the nominees.
The runners-up are then put into consideration for Police Officer of the Year, and Firefighter/EMT of the year, according to Halloran. "It was the fact that he [Deputy Robert Williams] put his life on the line to save someone else that really impressed council members," Halloran said.
Prior to working for the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, Williams, a native of Hattiesburg, Miss., was a deputy in the New Orleans Sheriff's Office for four years. Before that, he spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 1996 as a technical sergeant.
Deputy Terry Williams said her husband "loves what he does." She said he wakes up at 3 a.m., every day - without the aid of an alarm clock - and is at work by 4 a.m., ready to pull warrants to serve before roll call at 6 a.m. "He eats, sleeps and drinks his job," she said.
Despite his age, Kimbrough and Terry Williams said Deputy Robert Williams takes his fitness seriously, and is able to not only keep up with deputies half his age, but to out-perform them.
"He works out twice a day, and gets on the treadmill every day," Terry Williams said. "There's a new breed of criminals out there, and you have to not just be on top of your game, but well beyond it to keep up with them."